The Jewish Chronicle
The ‘lullaby effect’ that stops us reading Torah
“Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock. / When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, and down will come baby cradle and all”
Can you picture the scene? A mother takes her delicate little child in her warm, comforting embrace. The baby has been having trouble sleeping and the bleary-eyed, half-sleeping woman has an idea. She takes the Moses basket, wraps the baby in his special blanket and heads for the tallest tree in the garden. Conveniently, there is a ladder leaning against the tree, which she clumsily climbs to perch the cradle on the topmost branches. Waving goodnight to her baby, she wearily heads back to the house, only to be met by the sound of heaving boughs, the thud of a fallen cradle and the swiftly ended cries of the baby.
Consider the lullaby’s lyrics. Isn’t that what we sing to our children to soothe them to sleep? The reason we are not horrified by the words is that we have ceased to think about them or even hear them as a piece of text.
We have become so used to the tree top that we no longer ask questions about whether this makes sense or not. We might call this, “the lullaby effect”. If we really thought about it, we would never sing about infanticide to our children.
When we read Torah stories and texts, we can also be struck down by the lullaby effect. These are stories that many have us have grown up with; that have been immortalised in technicolour musical dream-coats and Egyptian prince animations. As a result, we often cease to think about the text in a deep and enquiring manner. They are simply empty lullabies from our childhood.
The lullaby effect is bolstered by the “fairy tale effect”. When I look around my shul, I see people operating at the highest level of academia, professional practice or business. The shul holds such a rich diversity of knowledge and life experience. However, for many there is a discordant mismatch between their advanced level in the secular world compared to their level of Jewish education.
Many of us did not have the opportunity to continue Jewish education beyond bar- and batmitzvah or cheder graduation. Imagine still reading Shakespeare in the form of the comic strip, “William for Kids”.
We may still read Torah text as we originally did in cheder, in the form of a fairy tale for young people, as opposed to in an adult manner that engages with deep, powerful and life-changing ideas. A discord is created between our secular adult life and our Jewish cheder life, leaving Torah text as fairy tales at best.
The lullaby effect stops us thinking. The fairy tale effect takes away our expectation that there is anything to think about.
In the “Chasing Lullabies” workshops I run, I take on both effects. Drawing material from experts in textual investigation, Rabbi David Fohrman, Rabbi Mattis Weinberg, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg and more, we begin by
We may still read Torah text as we originally did in cheder’ being incredibly curious about the Torah text. We ask three types of questions.
Firstly, internal questions: something difficult about the text itself. Why is Noah described as being “righteous in his generation”? Would it not have sufficed to say that he was “righteous”? These questions can start to show word patterns, textual themes and literary devices.
Secondly, external questions: something difficult that arises from the text. Why would God create a world only to drown and destroy it a short while later — what was the grand plan here? External questions try to deal with the theory and concepts the text is communicating.
Thirdly, reflective questions: how I feel and think about the text. How do I relate to a Creator that is willing to annihilate the world? Reflective questions bring our sense of self into the process rather than being a frustrated bystander.
In the last two terms of Chasing Lullabies, approximately 50 members have regularly logged in to sessions, with further presentations given to other shuls. Participants have felt challenged, enthused and inspired. Perhaps more importantly, they have felt part of an adult, rigorous process of discovery.
Back to Noah; we hear echoes of the creation of the world in the flood narrative. In creation of the world, “And the world was formless and void, darkness was on the face of the deep. And the spirit/wind of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Darkness, waters, wind, spirit, waves — it looks like a great windy flood. Interestingly, as the flood in the Noah story comes to an end, we hear, “God caused a wind to blow over the waters” (Genesis 8:1). In both the creation and the flood stories, we find a wind of/from God over the waters.
The parallels continue. Both stories have a division of waters, a revealing of dry land, a (re)generation of vegetation, the appearance of birds, the release of animals, the expansion of humankind. Both stories also have temptation as well as Shabbat or covenant (rainbow).
Perhaps the Narrator of the Torah wants us to understand that the world is being created again after the flood; there is a re-creation. Destruction is reframed as a second chance albeit with a different emphasis. Before it was God’s world where we were guests, now it is man’s world that needs to invite God in.
We can start by inviting God back into His book and back into our lives. We can chase away the lullabies and live as proud, educated and curious Jewish adults; rocking on by.